Friday, November 21, 2014

URSP Student Ushna Ahmad Studies the Relationship of Staghorn Coral Found in the Tropical Western Atlantic

My research project this semester focuses on the relationship of staghorn coral found in the tropical Western Atlantic, and one of it’s primary predators, the bearded fireworm. More specifically, we are using histological techniques to determine if the fireworm are contributing to coral tissue degradation following feeding activity and serve as potential vectors in spreading the suspect pathogen around the coral. Such diseases cause living tissue to slough off the coral, exposing the stark-white skeleton underneath and having a negative effect on the entire reef. This result can have an impact on the surrounding environment and organisms that depend on the reefs as well.

As a biology major, I am not only interested in exploring which factors are linked to specific diseases, but how these diseases can affect the entire ecology of an environment. Therefore, I feel it is important to understand the various aspects, whether they are genetic, pathogenic, anthropogenic, or completely natural, that may be causing the shifts in a specific environment.  Taking part in this study provided me with a unique opportunity to combine both these aspects from microbiology and ecology into my research, and also make useful contributions to the world of histology and marine biology.

A typical week of research for me consists of attending a graduate level course Monday mornings taught by mentor in which I learn more about the anatomy of various coral, different diseases, and both biotic and abiotic factors that effect coral. Additionally, I spend time identifying which histoslides I need to study for my research, staining and labeling the selected slides, and reading them under a light microscope to recognize suspect bacteria or anything else that may be unusual and reveal something about the coral-fireworm relationship. It is important that I also stay organized, keep track of all my slides, and maintain a spreadsheet to record all my data and observations in order to make a proper analysis.

This research project has been an incredibly exciting opportunity for me. Just this week, I discovered something new on the histoslides with my mentor, which could completely change our theory of how the disease spreads on the coral reefs!